Bucharest, May 2018
When one game at a venue is good, it’s usually a sign that their others are worth playing as well. Their designers might have put more investment into one room than other, or have improved their skills or increased their budget over time, but the ‘house style’ tends to show through. It’s rare for a single company to offer both a brilliant game and a disastrously bad one, but… well, you can see where this is going. For avoidance of doubt, I Spy was the disaster. Nor was that simply a matter of it not matching my tastes or of some one-off problem ruining the game.
The decor was as plain as I’ve seen anywhere, a simple room with basic furniture and some padlocks. But I don’t want to criticise too much for that, because I’ve seen games that looked very simple and yet impressed in their ingenuity and with their clever puzzles.
Taking the puzzles in I Spy one at a time in isolation, most of them were acceptable enough with no unconscionable leaps of logic – with the exception of one that simply expects you to brute force your way to the solution (and also had an auto-lockout, though one that was mercifully brief). Very little stood out as interesting or memorable either, but the biggest problem was with the game played as a whole.
‘Flow’ is a woolly concept, and often it’s just a proxy for whether a team struggled at a game or not. But there are ways to structure puzzles that helps direct players’ attention to the right places, and there are ways to accidentally mislead them and encourage them to chase dead ends. Academically I found I Spy a genuinely interesting case study in what does – or rather does not – work for creating flow.
Here are some tips for what not to do. Use multiple puzzles based around colour, so that one set of clues appear to apply somewhere they don’t. Use colour unnecessarily on another puzzle for decorative purposes to confuse things further. Make clue items available long before they can be used, but have them look relevant to earlier puzzles. Use a mixture of arbitrary symbols that have no meaning other than that later provided for them, and also symbols that are intended to represent objects in the room (though which do so ambiguously). Combine multiple answers mathematically to form a padlock code, such that if there’s an error in any one part the overall result will fail without any sign of where the problem is.
I’m in danger of getting carried away with criticism here, no doubt partly because we played I Spy immediately after a stunningly good game at the same venue, and the contrast was sharp enough to give me whiplash. But from its boring appearance through to its underwhelming goal (find a suitcase), via an accumulation of so many small design issues, I struggle to find anything nice to say about it – except that the gamesmaster was friendly and did his job well. This game doesn’t belong at this otherwise impressive venue, and I hope they switch it out soon for something – anything? – better.